Dahlgren Recalls Decline of Gehrig 50 Years Ago
Long before he dressed in New York Yankee pinstripes, at a time when the thought of anyone replacing Lou Gehrig seemed preposterous, Ellsworth (Babe) Dahlgren was eyewitness to a scene the significance of which he would not appreciate for several years. He was a rookie with the Boston Red Sox in 1935 when his childhood hero ripped a hit and fell while rounding first base in a game at Fenway Park. Gehrig needed assistance.
“The ground was soft because it had rained,” Dahlgren said. “But normally you dive all over the field and don’t get hurt. I yelled for the ball, but the umpire called time before I could tag him. Then Doc Painter, the trainer, came out.”
It was among the first indications that the Iron Horse, the most durable player in the history of the major leagues, was not indestructible. Dahlgren thought of that moment four years later when Gehrig took himself out of the lineup before a game in Detroit. Yankee Manager Joe McCarthy sent Dahlgren, who had since become a Yankee and had been used in a late-inning defensive role the previous season, to first base.
And so ended an era. The date was May 2, 1939. Gehrig did not remove himself in the fifth inning of a tight game, as was indicated in the movie “Pride of the Yankees.” “That was Hollywood stuff,” Dahlgren said. The truth may have been more dramatic.
“There had been rumors,” Dahlgren said from his home in southern California. “I was in the clubhouse looking over my glove when (coach Art) Fletcher came over to me. He had a chiseled chin and he stuck it right in my face. He said, ‘You’re in there.’ ”
But Gehrig, the captain, first carried the lineup card to home plate. Stunned by the announcement of a New York batting order without Gehrig, the Detroit crowd accorded the visiting star a warm ovation as he walked back to the dugout. After appearing in an unprecedented 2,130 consecutive games, Gehrig never would play again.
Perhaps what followed did not fit theatrical standards of the age. Without Gehrig, the Yankees battered the Tigers, 22-2. Dahlgren hit a home run, a double off the top of the fence and two drives that were caught against the fence. Yet, like the rest of his teammates, the man had mixed emotions.
A native Californian, Dahlgren said he drew pictures of Babe Ruth and Gehrig on the inside covers of his schoolbook binders. “I especially admired Gehrig because he was a first baseman like me,” Dahlgren said. “I never dreamed one day I’d be in New York to take the man’s place.”
The Yankees purchased his contract from Boston before the 1937 season, but his career with the team was without distinction until 1939. Gehrig was 35 at the start of spring training. He had hit 29 homers and driven in 114 runs in 1938, outstanding figures for the vast majority of players but well below his personal standards. His difficulties in training camp were attributed to his age.
“But there were two incidents that made you think something was wrong,” Dahlgren said. “We were playing the (Brooklyn) Dodgers and Lou hit a long ball to right-center. Pete Reiser started chasing it, and we were all watching him. Reiser retrieved the ball and we saw him throw to the shortstop and suddenly someone said, ‘Where’s Lou?’ He was still midway between first and second. He just made it in time, but as he got to second his legs started to bow out.
“The other incident occurred in St. Petersburg (Fla.). Someone hit a slow roller to first and Lou came down toward the catcher. He juggled the ball, bent over to get it and couldn’t straighten up.”
Gehrig played in just eight games that season. The most productive cleanup hitter in baseball was batting .143 with no home runs and one RBI when he told McCarthy he was hurting the team. It wasn’t until he underwent tests at the Mayo Clinic in New York that his falloff was attributed to failing health. Even then, the severity of his condition was withheld from the public.
Precisely a half-century ago, Gehrig humbly acknowledged the tribute of his fellow New Yorkers for a monumental career. He was the guest of honor on Lou Gehrig Appreciation Day at Yankee Stadium, where a 50th anniversary celebration was staged last Tuesday. On July 4, 1939, Gehrig dismissed the fatal nature of his illness, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, and proclaimed himself “the luckiest man on the face of the earth.”
Few moments in baseball have approached the poignancy of Gehrig’s farewell. Dahlgren said it was only after McCarthy whispered in his ear, “If Lou starts to fall, catch him,” that he understood the full significance of what he was witnessing. He was standing just far enough away from Gehrig to make him sweat at the prospect. “I watched him closely as he gave his speech,” Dahlgren said. “It looked like he was wearing a motor in the back. His rear end was just trembling.”